Recently there has been a little buzz about the not-really-so-new ideas at Kohenet, the Hebrew Priestess Institute (founded in 2006), which was founded Holly Shere, a folklorist, and Jill Hammer, a JTS ordinee and her co-director. Tablet ran a short article about it, reasonably even-handedly attempting to explain what they are and do.
The responses in the article, from Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school,“I don’t see how Kohenet, to judge from its website, is compatible with Jewish belief and practice,” and from Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a dean of the seminary at Yeshiva University, are, respectively, accurate and a bit over the top. Nevertheless, they both really miss the point anyway.

Hammer and Shere claim that their -approach “holds ‘a soft position with regard to monotheism.’ While their work ‘conceives of God/dess as a unity,’ they ‘welcome women who experience the divine as a multiplicity,’” they claim that their program is attempting to restore the divine feminine and reintroduce “earth-based” ritual and reject “the patriarchy, hierarchy, and the disembodiment’ of mainstream Jewish practice.”
So, to summarize, the public information about the program states that it is seeking to use magical ritual and aren’t dedicated to monotheism.
While it’s true that claiming that any religious practice which isn’t monotheistic can not claim that it falls within normative Judaism (and their own practitioners, make such claims as -“‘We’re not as learned as rabbis are in Torah and Talmud—what I call the writings of men,’ says Yocheved Landsman, of Boulder, Colorado, who was ordained in Kohenet’s first graduating class last year,” dismissing the writings of Judaism, as “men’s”), I don’t really care much about that – I mean, if they want to invent a new religion, why not? It’s no worse than any other new religion – let many flowers bloom- as long as they’re willing to admit that what they’re doing isn’t really Judaism – which they more or less do if you read the fine print. No, what I object to, is in fact that what they’re doing is the same old anti-feminist position, dressed up.
I used to hear this all the time in women’s studies classes: “studying X is of no use, because it’s a men’s way of thinking.” usually that referred to science or math or philosophy; something where rigor counted more than one’s own personal opinion (and opinion was usually called “my reality, ” as in, “Well, you say that it’s useful to know about chemistry and biology to understand how our bodies work, but that’s your reality. My reality is that science is a men’s way of thinking and those men are defining for me how my body works, and so I reject that.” Yes, really. Thomas Kuhn has a lot to answer for).
The problem with this perspective it that it first of all generalizes a particular perspective into “the way that women are”: The divine feminine can’t be warlike, that’s a male descriptor, God can’t be loving and merciful, those are female traits, the Shekhina is tied to ‘earth” -i.e. the material world, and so we “celebrate” her that way. This is the same old “men are mind and women are body” that has been used for centuries to limit women. (Not to mention that what we today think of as “feminine” and “masculine” traits are highly society-specific – note how the current view of what is the Divine female are traits that were previously ascribed to the divine male in Judaism! Similarly with human men….)
Secondly there’s the whole earth-based thing. Magic is what oppressed peoples use in order to gain a little power back from those who oppress them. We don’t need that. If you want equality in Judaism, make the effort to learn the languages that allow you to access the texts. The problem is that it takes work. A lot of effort and years of study.
It is curious that the program likes to use the language of kabbala. Curious because of the way that the kabbalists actually described that divine feminine: not what I would guess one would call positive female role models: not the warm fuzzy side of the sefirotic chart (love and mercy), but rather the harsh and judging side; the lowest level of the sefirot – the shekhina or nukvah – is the receiver and has no active participation. I’m okay with that. You’ll note I have no problem with judging. I think judgment is a good idea under some circumstances. Warm fuzzies can come after the situation is truly understood, not before. Consequences are often important for learning. But it’s not exactly a tradition of women are nicey-nice or important.
Thirdly, there’s the anti-monotheist trend problem. Aside from the problem of whether non-strictly-monotheist perspectives can be Jewish (which I don’t much care about for the purposes of this post), they are creating a worse problem for themselves by means of their own “solution.” Modern Rabbinic Judaism regards God as without body and without gender. Certainly biblical era Israelite religion used gendered language to talk about God (which was certainly made worse by the fact that Hebrew and other Semitic languages are heavily gendered so even chairs and tables are stuck with being “male” and “female”) and clearly believed – at least to some extent – that God had male characteristics. But the attempt to stamp that out caught on early, and certainly by the time of Rambam was pretty clearly articulated: God is neither male nor female, not embodied. While it may be true that this has something to do with “fear of the body. And often, it’s fear of the female body,” that’s a bit tendentious. Other religions of the era had no problem stating explicitly God’s maleness (including our sister Semitic religion, Christianity) and embodiment; Judaism denied it explicitly. I don’t note that Christianity of the era did so much better honoring women and making them equals: to the contrary, in the institutionalization of Christianity, the embodiment of God further defined the mind-body split, re-imagining the Aristotelian view of women as having a lower level soul, more like an animal’s, when they defined woman below man, like man below God.
Monotheism isn’t the problem: if we want a version of spirituality that expresses how we are as women, maybe we should try avoiding branding all women – and for that matter, all men- as being like one thing or another. Even better, if we want to try to have a relationship with the Divine, I suggest avoiding making It over in my own particular image might be helpful, leaving It to be larger than myself, and having aspects that might be beyond reach of my mind. It does nothing for women to claim that we need our own female god; nor does it do much for women to say that thousands of years of tradition is beyond my reach, so I’ll just invent something else and say that it’s the same thing.
In the Tablet article, Hammer and Shere cite Miriam dancing with a timbrel as their notion of “most resembling” a priestess. Perhaps so, since other powerful female figures in the Torah (why is poor Miriam always called in to represent any female as needed; there are other interesting women in the Torah!) were women like Devorah, a war leader, or Huldah, a prophet who declared the validity of a divine text (as well as the usual sort of prophesying) or how about the five daughters of Tzelophchad (who are named) who challenge Moses to change an unjust law – and succeed. I note that none of these women are mentioned in the “Thirteen Priestess Paths” mentioned on the Kohenet website – not even under the heading of “Neviah,” while instead, they do elevate the Witch of Endor. They do mention, “To be a ba’alat ov, or the keeper of a spirit, was a forbidden practice in ancient Israel,” and, today, of course, as well.
Really, Kohenet is calling on women to perform necromancy as an act of spiritual leadership? And amulet-making? Seriously?
In short, I don’t much care whether Hammer and Shere want to invent another set of rituals that have nothing to do with a family-resemblant tradition that has taken shape through the ages. The image that Kohenet presents seems to be a renewal of a particular era’s view of what it meant to be female: goddesses, the moon, menstrual blood- I remember feeling attracted to that sort of thing when I was a teenager and felt emotionally connected to the idea that there was some Divine thing Out There that looked like me.  But that path is not, ultimately, empowering. And it’s certainly not feminist.
Ultimately, it’s a way of taking someone else’s definition of what women should be and accepting it, then trying to figure out a way to sneak in a little bit of power in the back door. Forget that.
Instead, I challenge Hammer and Shere to do better: reject it. Find a divinity that accepts no limitation, admits no stereotype, doesn’t swallow ridiculous stereotypes and doesn’t make over God in your (idea of) human image.
Judaism hasn’t been perfect (nor has any other religion) in separating human hubris from celebration of the Divine. It hasn’t been able to perfectly separate human men’s tendency to view their power over some parts of the community as divinely ordained and thus reflecting both the natural order and Divine demand. But in monotheism, there is the potential to do so.
As early as the talmud and midrash, the rabbis recognized that the way things are in our world aren’t necessarily the way God intended things:
The Sifre (Parshat Pinhas, Bamidbar 27:1, Kuf lamed gimal (133) of the Horowitz edition; Sifre is a talmud-era work of biblical exegesis) reports, “‘And the daughters of Tzelophchad drew near’ When the daughters of Tzelophchad learned that the land would be divided amongst the tribes to the males but not to the females, they gathered together and all of them came together to consult with each other for advice. They said: God’s mercy is not like the mercy of human beings. Human beings have mercy upon the male more than upon the female, but God is not thus, rather God’s mercy is upon both males and females, as the Torah says, ‘[God] gives mercy to all flesh.’”
I suppose we might despair that despite the recognition of this fact, not a whole changed for quite along time, and be tempted to give up on our tradition because even today, so many people are busy trying to enforce particular gender roles as divinely ordained, whether or not it’s true (if it were true one would hardly need to enforce it: there are no laws preventing people from flapping their arms and rising into the air), but it’s worthwhile to pay attention to the rabbis’ attempts to get us to recognize that our image is not the last word in how the divine really exists and makes the world.
So, reinvent away: But you’re making a big mistake: if you really want power or equality, you have to be willing to demand it: setting up an alternative system that has no access to, the tradition of thousands of years is a denial of one’s own power, not a reclamation. It’s simply not true that the master’s tools will never take down the master’s house: in fact, those tools are the best ones we have to make a fit home for all of us, men and women, together.